American Elections and Campaigns – 1865 to 1900: Postbellum Partisanship, Campaigning, and Infighting

Portrait photograph of James A. Garfield, c. 1870. (Library of Congress)
Portrait of Winfield S. Hancock, c. 1870. (Library of Congress)

The four decades after the Civil War’s end saw a major increase in newspaper circulation. Due to the partisan divide between the Union and the Confederacy in the war, newspapers that already had political leanings were further entrenched along party lines, especially in election years. 1880 saw the Republicans and Democrats challenge each other for the presidency with their respective candidates: James A. Garfield and Winfield S. Hancock. Since the end of the war, the Republican Party enjoyed a series of victories in both the Executive and Legislative Branches of government. Republican candidates would invoke the devastation of the Civil War in their campaigns, often blaming the Democratic Party for allowing the ensuing destruction to have taken place. This technique was commonly referred to as “waving the bloody shirt,” where Republican candidates – some of whom were Union military veterans – would say that Democratic victories were morally-equivalent to Confederate victories. This Republican invocation conveyed the message that any Democratic candidate’s electoral victory was a betrayal of the cause that Union soldiers fought, suffered, and died for in the war. The technique proved to be effective for several elections, as many newspapers, magazines, and political cartoons reflected the lingering sense of grief and solemn patriotism in a post-war America. Ironically, both Garfield and Hancock were commanding officers in the Union Army who fought together against the Confederacy, but their partisan political allegiances made little difference to the voting public. The Hancock campaign responded to Garfield’s “bloody shirt waving” by criticizing the moral character of the Republican Party. Hancock specifically referenced the Republican Party’s involvement in the Crédit Mobilier scandal of 1864 to 1867. During the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, the Union Pacific Railroad Company – in league with the banking institution Crédit Mobilier – bribed several members of Congress for favorable laws to carry out their work. These bribes allowed the two companies to buy out – and in some cases even forcefully seize – many plots of open frontier land belonging to the Indigenous tribes, migrating Americans, and newly-arrived immigrants. The scandal was officially revealed to the nation by The New York Sun in 1872, directly in the middle of the Republican president Ulysses S. Grant’s re-election campaign. As many Republican politicians were revealed to be part of the scandal, two of the major candidates for the party’s nomination were removed from the ballot in response to the ensuing controversy. The scandal remained topical through Grant’s second presidential term all the way to 1880, when Hancock’s campaign used it to encapsulate what they perceived as the corruption of post-war Republicans in Congress. Despite some controversy over the ballot counting, Garfield was determined the winner of the 1880 election, having won 214 electoral votes to Hancock’s 155. No Democratic presidents were elected since James Buchanan in 1856, and it would not be until Grover Cleveland in 1884 when they would return to the White House.

A “bloody shirt” political cartoon by “Judge” criticizing Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson, 1892. (Public Domain)
Joseph Keppler political cartoon satirizing the Crédit Mobilier scandal. It shows Uncle Sam directing congressmen who were revealed to be part of it to commit “Hara-Kiri,” referring to Japanese ritual suicide, 1873. (Public Domain)

A major shift in the way presidential candidates campaigned took hold in the election of 1896. In most of the prior presidential elections, each candidate’s campaign was conducted by hired representatives or speakers acting on the prospective leader’s behalf. The candidates themselves would make speeches and go to debates, but not at the constant frequency as they have in modern times. Republican candidate William McKinley broke new ground with his “front-porch campaign,” where he would invite the general public and members of the press to his home in Ohio. McKinley’s campaign staff would create carefully-organized itineraries for each day’s speaking engagements, whereupon his spoken remarks were transcribed and released to the press the following day. This campaign method was effective in that it made McKinley appear as a more personable, “down-to-earth” candidate, and his new economic policies resonated with an American public that was still recovering from the financial Panic of 1893. Meanwhile, Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan broke new ground with the “whistle-stop campaign.” Bryan and his campaign staff used the newly-built railroad networks to travel across the United States. Riding over 18,000 miles in his campaign, Bryan gave five-hundred speeches to millions of prospective voters, all within a one-hundred day time span. While these efforts were groundbreaking for the time, the major newspapers were still divided along partisan lines, and even pro-Democratic news companies refused to publicize Bryan’s campaign. The lack of publicity for Bryan was largely rooted in the Democratic Party going through its own interval of infighting. Bryan was politically-allied with the newly-formed Populist Party, a left-wing third party mostly composed of voters from the western states and territories. They were displeased with both the Democrats and Republicans for seemingly not doing enough to help lower-class American laborers and settlers. The Populists wanted to eliminate the monopoly of gold bullion in the economy, to impose a graduated income tax on big businesses, and called for the direct election of Senators by popular vote (which would later become the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913). Democrats who were sympathetic to the Populists ran against establishment Democrats, who saw them as being too progressive in their politics.

Photograph of William McKinley giving a speech during his “front-porch campaign,” 1896. (Public Domain)
“Puck” political cartoon satirizing William Jennings Bryan’s “whistle-stop campaign,” 1896. (Library of Congress)

Meanwhile, the Republicans heavily criticized Bryan and his policies. McKinley’s campaign accused Bryan’s policies of being rooted in anarchism. Certain leaders went so far as to conflate Bryan with Illinois Governor John Altgeld, who had infamously pardoned several anarchists for the violence in the 1886 Haymarket Square riot. In spite of the many controversies levied by the Republicans and Democrats, Bryan near-unanimously secured his party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention. One of the topical issues raised by Bryan was bimetallism, a Populist proposal to have both gold and silver counted as legal bullion in the American economy. Many of the western states and territories – especially Colorado and Nevada – were silver-rich in their mines. Allowing silver into the economic system was seen as a way to grant these frontier states more political and economic influence. In his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, Bryan promised that he and his followers would fight against the gold standard, declaring that neither their political rivals nor the powerful industrialists of the time would ever be able to “crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” In spite of the high acclaim Bryan received, the prospective voting bases of frontier immigrants and labor unions were largely unconvinced of the bimetallism proposal. Immigrant communities were concerned that the inclusion of silver bullion would cause inflation, while the labor unions feared both inflation and bankruptcy if large quantities of silver were suddenly infused into industries that had been gold-dominated for decades. The Republicans mocked the bimetallism proposal in their campaign ads, famously publishing the satirical dollar bill tagline, “IN GOD WE TRUST…FOR THE OTHER 53 CENTS.” McKinley ultimately won the election against Bryan with 271 and 176 electoral votes, respectively. While the two would face each other again in the 1900 presidential election, it would be in an era with even more major changes in the news reporting, campaigning, and technologies of not just the two major political parties, but also of the entire United States in the early 20th century.

Illustration of William Jennings Bryan after giving the well-received “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention, 1896. (Public Domain)
Democratic Party campaign poster highlighting Bryan’s calls for gold and silver in the economy, 1896. (Library of Congress)

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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